Exceptional Rodeo brings National Western experience to children with autism

The sound of children’s laughter and a palpable exhilaration flooded the National Western Stock Show Coliseum during the Exceptional Rodeo, held on the second Tuesday of the 16-day stock show.

Now in its 35th year, the Exceptional Rodeo, hosted in partnership with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), adds a particularly special element to the Stock Show’s lineup each year, delivering a firsthand rodeo experience to children with physical and developmental disabilities. This year, the event was managed by the Temple Grandin Equine Center, a program of Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

“The Exceptional Rodeo is a perfect example of fulfilling the land-grant mission,” said Adam Daurio, director of Administration and Outreach for the Temple Grandin Equine Center. “Such an amazing community outreach event! It brings the enrichment of agriculture and Western heritage to so many individuals, with and without special challenges.”

More than two dozen PRCA cowboys and rodeo queens volunteered their time to lead 22 children through the five stations of a traditional rodeo — steer wrestling, barrel racing, roping, bull riding, and bronc riding — using life-sized, interactive animal props. Participants also had the opportunity to visit with Thunder, the Denver Broncos’ mascot.

Twenty of the children participating were students with autism from The Joshua School in Englewood, Colo.

Volunteers teach about Western lifestyle

Macazlyn Brinkworth and Cassidy Esposito, two of the 14 rodeo queens involved, volunteered to lead the Exceptional Rodeo’s steer wrestling activity, also known as “bulldogging,” where participants experience the thrill of single-handedly wrestling a life-saved replica steer to the ground.

“We have a very deep history with Western lifestyle and have been rodeo queens for many years,” said Esposito. “We like to work with the youth and teach kids about the Western way of life.”

Nelson Wyatt, a PRCA cowboy and volunteer, was glad to be a part of the Exceptional Rodeo, noting this was his first time in Denver participating in the National Western Stock Show Rodeo. Wyatt’s favorite part was “helping kids rope the ‘dummy’ [steer].”

While a few of the activities appeared to overwhelm some participants, everyone seemed enthralled by the experience overall. Meeting Thunder was clearly a highlight for many.

Every child who participated received an Exceptional Rodeo t-shirt, a cowboy hat, a lariat rope, and a special PRCA Exceptional Rodeo trophy.

Tierra Jefferson, lead teacher at The Joshua School, was excited to see her students light up as they received their new gear, but her favorite part was “getting the kids out of their comfort zones and seeing how much they’ll actually do.” Watching them experience the rodeo alongside real-life cowboys and cowgirls left an impression on Jefferson and her team. “Every single one of our kids rode a model horse, which is really not typical.”

Group photo of all Exceptional Rodeo volunteers, chaperones, and participants.

About the Temple Grandin Equine Center

The College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University is currently raising funds to build a Temple Grandin Equine Center on the Fort Collins campus. The facility will house faculty members and graduate students conducting research in the area of equine assisted activity and therapy. Therapy sessions will also be held at the future Fort Collins facility where parents, children, and other patients can have a safe, welcoming, and private space. For more information, contact Keely Mendicino in the college’s Development Office.

About the Colorado State University and the National Western Center

Colorado State University has made a long-term commitment to the reimagining of the National Western Center in North Denver, and the communities surrounding the project. Efforts are under way to create partnerships with community schools, nonprofits and businesses, and to actively engage in the community.

A key and founding partner in the National Western Center, CSU will have three buildings within the 250-acre campus upon completion. The project, which will break ground in the coming years, expands and regenerates the current National Western Stock Show site, turning it into a vibrant, year-round experiential, community-centric, life-long learning destination in the heart of Denver. 

As Colorado’s land-grant university, CSU’s mission of research, service, and access, fits with the outreach mission of the National Western Center. CSU’s plans at the new campus focus on research and education programming in the areas of food systems, water, environment, energy, and health. The university has initiated programming and service outreach efforts before buildings are constructed, as part of its commitment to the area. For additional information, visit nwc.colostate.edu.